By Cormac McCarthy
Vintage International (Random House, Inc.)
The first time I wrote this review, it took me a long time. Now that I’m writing it a second time*, I wonder, and worry, that it will not have the same impact as the first.
Before I start, there will be spoilers so if you don’t want to know, stop reading now. My feelings won’t be hurt.
The Road is a scary book and I don’t mean in that creepy kind of way. It’s a full on terror that makes you want to jam something in the light switch so that it never turns off and then permanently lock yourself in so you never have to face the fears of the outside world.
The story takes place in a post-apocalyptical America. There is nothing left but a ravaged landscape for the few survivors to pick over to sustain their meager existence. We meet a father and his son on the road heading south in the hopes of leaving the cold winter behind them. The only possessions they have are piled in an old shopping cart that is their only company besides the falling ash. They keep to themselves since they are afraid of coming in contact with the gangs that roam the highways looking for survivors. The father and son cleave to each other and the little they have.
From that description, the book would sound more sad than scary. What I left out, and will cover now, are the scary parts.
Not only is the setting, a world scraped clean by some epic and unexplained devastation, a bad place to imagine, but to be running from roving bands of gangs who aim to steal humans to use as a food source is even scarier. The father and son can trust no one and each time they leave a person alive the father is left wondering if they will come back to kill him and his son at some point. They are constantly running and always on the edge of starvation. They lead utterly desolate lives filled with nothing.
The scariest scene in this book is the basement scene. It actually made me stop reading at one point but only for a short time. Without any more introduction…I give you the basement scene. The father and son come upon a house. It looks like it’s in good condition, and knowing they have no food left, the father decides they must risk it and investigate. The son is terrified of the indoors and begs his father to leave the moment they enter the house. The father is determined to find something to feed his son. He doesn’t find canned goods though but he does find a locked door to a basement. With the son dragging on his father’s hand or coat sleeve, whichever he can get a hold of, the father begins to hack away at the lock delirious with the idea of finding food. He gets the door open and what he finds in the basement is this: people chained to walls missing arms, legs, feet, and hands. He finds a food source, but not the one he and his son survive on. They run from the house knowing that the owners will be back and they have no desire to become part of the basement fare. The hide in the woods hoping they will not be found. The scene is short but will make your heart beat fast in those few pages.
It’s not what is found in the basement, although that in itself is a most disgusting thought, it’s the son’s reaction and his incessant begging of the father to leave. He keeps saying he has a bad feeling and wants to go but the father, in a rage to find to food, forgets himself and almost gets the two of them killed. The moments are so intense you can hear your own heart beat in the utter silence that envelopes the father and son in the house.
There is not much dialogue in this book but what sparse words are used only add to the complete and utter sadness of their lives. They are walking on a road to nowhere, not knowing where it will take them, and if it will lead them to salvation or death.
The writing is hard, short, staccato almost in its brevity. The two people alone don’t have much to say and that mirrors their plight. There just isn’t much for them anywhere. There is nothing of the life the father once knew and he has trouble conveying what that even was to his son.
The father seems to view the son as a Jesus figure of sorts and that’s what drives him to protect him so manically. His thoughts are always of his son and it’s sad to watch him reason with himself about the best way to protect him. There’s much more to this issue but I think it comes through better if you read it yourself since it’s very hard to describe adequately here.
McCarthy doesn’t use accepted punctuation styles to make the dialogue stand out so it took me a few minutes of reading to get a feeling for his style. Once there, he sucks you in. There were many times that I wanted to put the book down but I couldn’t.
My edition of the book notes that McCarthy is a Pulitzer Prize winner and with good reason — this is easily one of the best books I have ever read.
* Thank you, computer, for eating my first review.